Damon grounds Soderbergh’s gnarly, screwball “The Informant!”

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Matt Damon, it would seem, is on a mission to make Trey Parker and Matt Stone chow down on some crow — big, heapin’ pie shells full of it. Since 2004, when “Team America” gave us the Matt Damon puppet, the Oscar winner has headlined two more “Ocean’s” movies, another Bourne thriller and mind-benders like “The Departed” and “Syriana.” And now he’s gone and tackled Mark Whitacre, that squirrelly fellow who blew the lid off a huge price-fixing scheme perpetrated by lysine development conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), in the mid-1990s.

How does Damon fare, you wonder? Let’s just say Trey and Matt might need to rifle their utensil drawers for some big ole’ wooden spoons. Damon is flat-out fantastic in Soderbergh’s twisty, witty corporate thriller, finding comedy in Whitacre’s delusions — he’s 0014, he insists, because he’s “twice as smart as 007″ — but also the boredom and unhappiness that puddle at the roots. This is a whopper of a performance, sad and humorous and disturbing, but so subtle that it probably won’t earn Damon any nominations. But acting this good is a triumph in itself.

Soderbergh, who seems to have some innate softness for whistle-blowers (“Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider”), lets Damon stand at the center of Scott Burns’ adapted screenplay. That’s a wise decision, considering it gives “The Informant!” a dose of humanity to offset the air of whimsy, the pretzel-like script and the dementedly chirpy score (direct all praise to composer Marvin Hamlisch). Whitacre’s an ambitious man looking to ascend the ranks at ADM, so he’s none too happy when his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) forces him to detail ADM’s global price-fixing plot to FBI Special Agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula, playing the bemused straight man). The feds get involved — including Special Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale, who’s sold out and probably can’t keep at it with that “Talk Soup” gig much longer) — and Whitacre ends up sporting wires, orchestrating clandestine meetings and, eventually, narcing on pretty much everyone who signs his sizable paychecks. And yet there’s so much more to the story, including a complex subplot involving a $9 million embezzlement scheme so mind-boggling in its flagrant stupidity that the feds don’t think to look for it.

Certainly there’s enough mayhem in Burns’ screenplay — adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s book — to keep viewers occupied for days. How could ADM keep a scam this big going so long? How many people were really involved, and how many had dirt on their hands? And the biggest question: Why would a man netting well over $300,000 a year even think of making a peep? The beauty of “The Informant!” is that we get few answers, and we get no answer at all to the last question. It’s all buildup and almost no release, no spoon-fed conclusion or resolution to settle that slightly sick feeling in our stomachs. While it’s plain fact that ADM faced stiff fines — to the tune of $100 million — and a few top execs did light jail time, Whitacre spent more than eight years in federal prison on those embezzlement charges. He did a public service, sure, but he paid handsomely for it. We’re left wondering uneasily: Did the real crooks get away because the informant had a few stacks of cash in his closet?

The way Damon plays him, no one can tell. He gives away nothing about Whitacre’s motivations (think Chris Cooper in “Breach”), providing us only with a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a man living so far inside his own head it’s a wonder he could hear people when they spoke to him. He spins wild yarns while acting cooperative, then retreats into his inner stream-of-consciousness monologue. Damon reveals more humanity in these moments than we expect — just watch the scene where his wife (Lynskey’s marvelous here) and Shepherd (Bakula has depth too) catch him in his last lie. The emotions – exhaustion and fear and resignation — that play on Damon’s face will twist your heart painfully. That’s what sticks with us when the music fades and the jokes dry up. Somehow the words “Matt Damon” don’t ring quite so funny. 

Grade: B+

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13 Responses

  1. I’m relieved to see you enjoyed this one. I haven’t yet, but hopefully can sneak it in this week. I just adore Matt Damon and hope to continue to see his career climb on the up and up.

  2. It took some time for “The Informant!” to grow on me, as a lot of the humor emerges from Whitacre’s inner monologues. The score really sets the tone — one review I read (maybe Ebert?) said it underscores Whitacre’s disordered thinking. But yeah, Matt Damon’s great. This is great stuff.

  3. It’s interesting that you found satisfaction in how the film does not offer conclusive answers. Not that I demand to be spoon fed, but I felt the film didn’t even give us a whole lot to chew on about Damon’s character and make any conclusions, or rather, searching for conclusions, based on what is in the film, but be like shooting in the dark. I don’t know, this film is getting rave reviews everywhere and I just thought it was decent at best. I really, really like Soderbergh’s work, especially his non-mainstream efforts, and yet I just didn’t get into this one.

    • “The Informant!” had to grow on me, and at first I didn’t much like that we don’t get any answers about Whitacre’s motivations. Yes, SOMETHING might be good, but I like that it’s all up in the air and we have to make our own decisions without much information. I feel like Damon’s inner monologues served as comic relief, but if you listen closely they give us A LOT of insight into his character we don’t get from the movie itself. In life we rarely understand why people do what they do, and we never get to hear their thoughts. At least in “The Informant!” we get a glimpse into the disordered mind of Damon’s character.

  4. I think I didn’t find him an interesting enough character to follow around for 90 minutes or whatnot. Yes, the inner monologues do provide some insight into the man that is Whitcare, but not necessarily make him compelling. In fact, they grew tiresome by the halfway point, as did that freaking musical score. This is a case where, contrary to my usual reaction, I wanted a little bit of what was going on in his mind when he opted to embezzle 9 million dollars instead of the little random bits of quirk that tell us he might be bipolar or something.

    I felt like I watched him for 90 minutes through very smokey glasses. There were glimpses into the man, but overall I just learned that he’s a dirty trickster.

  5. I really REALLY want to see this. Sadly I have a feeling my country won’t be featuring it anytime soon because of its lack of appreciation towards non-blockbuster films.

    Oh and you really have a cool site. Do you mind if we exchange blog links?


    G
    http://worldthree.wordpress.com
    :D

    • I hope the movie makes it to The Philippines — it’s really one of Matt Damon’s best, better than the Bourne films, in my opinion.

      • Yep yep I hope so. In fact (well not really related, but kinda) 500 Days of Summer will finally be shown here next month. So laaaate… but finally y’know?

        BTW, I already added your link on my blogroll. Hope it’s cool :)

      • I’m very happy “(500) Days” made it out your way — an imperfect but great movie about lost love.

        Thanks for adding me to your blogroll!

  6. First you’re spot on about Jennifer’s Body, now I read this and completely agree yet again. I shall have to add you to my blogroll. And also, are you on Twitter?

    • No Twitter yet — I am sorely behind the times. But I do hope you’ll stop in again soon, and I’ll keep visiting your site. Any woman who likes movies like “Jennifer’s Body” is a smart woman, indeed!

  7. [...] “The Informant!” James Bond ain't got nothin' on whistleblower Mark Whitacre, a spy of his own creation, in [...]

  8. [...] the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined [...]

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